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“The Right to the City should mean the right to safety”: How can cities protect refugees?

Dar es Salaam, one of the fastest growing cities in sub-Sahara Africa, is on track to become a “mega-city” of over 10m residents by 2025. Much of this growth will occur in informal and unplanned areas of the city, exacerbating many of the current challenges of public service provision, economic accessibility and sustainable growth. So while millions of people will come to Dar es Salaam looking for a better life, there is no guarantee they will find it.

Among these millions are an estimated tens of thousands of displaced: those forced from their homes due to conflict in neighbouring countries, predominantly the DRC and, more recently, Burundi. They come to Dar es Salaam despite Tanzania’s policy that refugees must reside in camps, hiding their identities for fear of discrimination – or worse – while doing their best to safely build a life for themselves.

Refugees are a small percentage of the overall population but the risks they face are far more dangerous. As urbanisation continues, they increasingly find themselves in competition with economic migrants and long-term urban residents for access to public services and for economic opportunities, while facing unique legal and social barriers. This struggle of the urban displaced is best encapsulated using Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the Right to the City.

The New Urban Agenda

This outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) refers to the Right to the City as its guiding visionary principle. It described that right as securing

equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and [ensuring] that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all.”

The document also calls for the inclusion, safety, and economic wellbeing of “refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants, particularly the poorest and those in vulnerable situations.”

Understanding how the Right to the City may include displaced populations, therefore, is critical to reaching the aims of the New Urban Agenda and to adapting aid to serve an urbanising world.


Violence in the City

While cities are rightly heralded for their wealth of opportunities, they are also a breeding ground for violence of every kind. A recent International Rescue Committee (IRC) review of the drivers of urban violence revealed a number of prevalent challenges specific to displaced populations in urban areas that contribute to the violence they experience: economic strain, inability to meet basic food and shelter needs, lack of legal protections and broad discrimination.

A current example is in Lebanon, where the majority of the 1.5m Syrian refugees live in urban areas, and half live in extreme poverty. A recent IRC survey found that economic strain on Syrian families – exacerbated by legal limitations on the right to work in their host country – is leaving some refugee parents with no choice but to send their children to work on the streets of Beirut and Tripoli, where they face a risk of physical, verbal and sexual violence. Of the 173 children surveyed – there are an estimated 1,500 children working on the streets of Lebanon – more than 60 percent said that they had experienced some form of violence.

A Way Forward

The bad news is that we’re all new at dealing with the scale and complexity of the problem. There is not enough hard evidence on how to address urban violence, build social cohesion, or ensure equal and inclusive access to services.

If I may put it simply, we don’t yet know how to encourage so many people who are perceived to be so different to get along within a single ward, neighbourhood, or sidewalk – let alone an entire city. And just to complicate things further, said city is growing faster than anyone can adequately measure or plan for.

The good news is that with documents, alliances, and toolkits – like the New Urban Agenda, the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, the Stronger Cities Initiative, or the IRC’s commitment to better aid by 2020 – there’s never been more evidence-backed resources or initiatives, from both humanitarian and development fields, dedicated to building the Right to the City than today.

To combat violence, we now know to focus on the disproportionate violence against women and youth; to prioritise legal status, documentation, and assistance of displaced persons; and to work on a community level to support economic inclusion and combat discrimination in cities. And we need to do all of this while respecting their desire to remain anonymous.

Next up is testing collaborative, innovative solutions that address the drivers of violence while building a more rigorous evidence base on what interventions work and are worth bringing to scale.

The Right to Safety

In a conversation I had with eleven displaced Congolese men living in Dar es Salaam, I learnt all had come to the city expecting opportunities to work and provide for their families; and all felt discriminated against by their neighbours, the police, their teachers, or their doctors to the point that they felt unsafe. None of them had the Right to the City, despite having lived there an average of 17 years.

The Right to the City means many things, but above all else it should mean the right to safety. While economic migrants and urban displaced are escaping different circumstances, both groups are moving to cities with the expectation of a better life, free of violence. We as humanitarians are adept at meeting the needs of the displaced. If we are to truly have a role in helping them achieve the Right to the City, we need to get better at meeting their expectations.

Samer Saliba is the urban technical specialist at the International Rescue Committee, and is currently gathering evidence around how to improve urban humanitarian response.

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